Overhaul of sex offender laws raises some concerns
The board that assesses Idaho's most dangerous sex offenders is asking lawmakers not to drop the violent sexual predator (VSP) designation in a proposed overhaul of the state sex offender laws, though that tag has come under constitutional fire. Members of the Sex Offender Classification Board (SOCB) say they're also concerned that victims of sexual crimes could have less input as the board potentially expands and broadens its scope.
“There are people out there that we just shake our heads and say 'it's not if this person is going to do something awful, it's when,'” said Moscelene Sunderland, who serves on the SOCB.
Idaho currently has more than 50 men listed as VSPs, which means they committed serious sex crimes and are deemed by the board as posing a high risk to offend again. However, the SOCB has been unable to label someone as a VSP since a 2009 Idaho Supreme Court case ruled the process of deeming offenders as violent predators violated the state constitution.
The VSP designation allows law enforcement officials to keep closer tabs on select sex offenders, since they have to register in person and by mail more frequently.
Scrapping the VSP is part of the changes to state sex offender laws heard by a Senate committee Monday. The SOCB would also be renamed the Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB) and the state's reporting requirements for all sex offenders could increase, requiring offenders to tell authorities their car license plates and online accounts, including e-mail.
The changes are part of legislation backed by the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission (ICJC) and follow recommendations from the Center for Sex Offender Management, a national group that advises state and local governments on dealing with sex offenders. “If this measure is adopted, Idaho will be using the best science available to assess offender risk, hold offenders accountable and protect the public,” said Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke, who also chairs the ICJC.
Steve Bywater, who works in the attorney general's office and helped put together the overhaul plan, said Idaho should get rid of the VSP label because of the Supreme Court case, and because he said there's no evidence that the extra reporting requirements reduce the likelihood that sex offenders become repeat offenders or deter potential new offenders. He also said the men currently listed as VSPs would likely still be considered as aggravated offenders and would be unable to take their names off the state's sex offender registry.
Thomas Hearn, a clinical social worker in north Idaho who serves on the SOCB with Sunderland, said told lawmakers Monday that Idaho should keep the VSP on the books, even if there's not a constitutional way to add new members. “This is a small but very dangerous group of individuals who re-offend at a high rate,” Hearn said.
The proposal to shift the SOCB to the SOMB would double the board's size from four to eight members while expanding its scope from classifying VSPs to managing state policy related to sex offenders. Hearn said the board generally supports those changes, though he's concerned that the shift would get rid of Sunderland's place on the board, as an advocate for victims of sex crimes.
Sunderland said she thinks it's imperative for victims to have a voice in state policy, and that not including an advocate on the reformed board doesn't make sense. “I think it marginalizes victims and is not very politically astute,” she said. She added that she's likely to leave her post on the board, since she's moving to another state.
All eight spots on the board are accounted for, by either law enforcement officials, lawyers, or professionals such as Hearn who treat sex offenders. Reinke said the board could easily have 12 or 25 members, but that an eight-member board would keep costs down and be more manageable. The larger board is expected to cost the state an added $74,000 a year, due mostly to additional operating expenses.
The changes to the state sex offender registry would require offenders to report an address change or a new job within two days. Much of the information required by offenders, including name, address, and crime committed, is part of a searchable statewide database run by the Idaho State Police.
The overhaul would also require people found guilty of disseminating material harmful to minors, which is a misdemeanor, to register as sex offenders. The crimes that trigger sex offender registration are generally felonies. A person could be guilty of the misdemeanor by giving a child a book, picture, or video that depicts nudity or sexual conduct and is harmful to minors.
Bywater said that change arose out of the ICJC's discussions on sex offender laws, and that it applies to people who knowingly try to harm minors. During the hearing,Gabriel McCarthy, a criminal defense attorney from Boise, questioned why that crime was added to the sex offender list, saying that extending the huge burden of being a sex offender is disproportionate to the crime.
“Nobody will touch you,” McCarthy told lawmakers. “It affects where you can live, where you can work.”
The Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee is scheduled to act on the proposed legislation Wednesday afternoon. The committee chairman, Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, is sponsoring the plan and has called it a major piece of legislation.